Is Your Data Center Ready for the Polar Vortex?

This month's unusual weather pattern has brought frigid air to parts of the U.S. that don't normally see extreme cold snaps. Not to worry. Many data centers operate just fine in brutally cold weather, and your colleagues from these colder climates have tips on how to adapt.

Jason Verge

January 27, 2014

7 Min Read
Is Your Data Center Ready for the Polar Vortex?



Many data centers are used to working in cold weather, including the Facebook data center in Lulea, Sweden. (Photo: Facebook)

Is your data center equipped to ride out the Polar Vortex? This month's unusual weather pattern has brought frigid air to parts of the U.S. that don't normally see extreme cold snaps. Not to worry. Many data centers operate just fine in brutally cold weather, and your colleagues from these colder climates have tips on how to adapt.

There are many considerations to keep in mind when dealing with extended cold snaps. We’re not talking about 60 degrees in Austin; we’re talking Minnesota winters, here.

"Cold weather is hard on equipment, can create unique challenges for fuel and cooling and can limit access to a site for customers and staff," said Matt Spencer, Chief Technology Officer of Cologix, which operates data centers across Canada and in Minnesota. "Operating in cold markets requires a different level of attention to details. If you don't have remote capabilities and a contingency plan in every data center, then your time will be spent being reactive in an environment that requires stability and uninterrupted services."

"There are several reasons why it’s necessary and important to prepare a data center for cold conditions," said Kenneth Cooper, Field Project Manager for Facility Operations at Schneider Electric. "These are mainly personnel and equipment protection."

Attention to Maintenance

A key component of operating in the cold is understanding the range of challenges the cold may present.

"Severe cold can cause a data center to operate outside of its specific design perimeters, which adds stress to the system," said Cooper. "In addition, if the temperature gets too cold, it becomes difficult to heat any air taken in from the outside. Beyond this, freeze can set in on outdoor equipment, including drain lines, fuel systems that don’t have the appropriate cold-weather additives, HVAC heating coils, cooling towers and humidification units. Frozen HVAC units can begin to leak water, while snow and frost can clog intake vents. If this occurs, it can be difficult for air to circulate and the entire system can shut down."

Attention to maintenance is critical. "We continually verify all block heaters, engine oil heaters, battery warmers etc. are all operating normally and follow a stringent maintenance schedule," said Spencer.

Compass Datacenters also knows about cold weather. The company is building a facility in Minnesota, where temperatures drop to the point where you can throw boiling water in the air and it turns into steam and ice almost instantly.

Consider the Environment

"In the case of the Minneapolis build, we heat that building all the time," said Chris Crosby, CEO of Compass Datacenters. "I’ve got $50,000 in budget just for propane during the winter construction period."

Crosby says it's imperative to take the environment into account with a data center build. "Whenever we go into a market, we take our product and we have adaptations to the design," he said. "For generators, it means insulation and a heater for generator enclosures. We make adjustments for our air unit. There’s additional installation in how you work those dampers. And the lack of humidity in cold is also a big issue in terms of working with electricity."

"Humidity issues are often associated with cold environments, so having efficient humidifiers in place is a must," agreed Spencer. "The use of anti-static wrist straps or other protection is mandatory to protect customer equipment. "Use ultrasonic humidification when possible to achieve a 97 percent energy savings on humidification energy versus traditional methods."

Design With Personnel In Mind

Crosby says there are human factors that must be considered in designing for areas that may experience cold weather.

" The ergonomics aspect is oftentimes overlooked. " said Crosby. "Have plenty of storage space for salt, and use stairwells instead of ladders. Keep the people inside enclosures at a warm level. You've got to take account of the human condition. It’s not cool being outside for extended periods in sub zero temperatures."

"How do you deal with things like ladders?," Crosby said. "In Minnesota, we use stairs instead of ladders to get from the lower roof to the higher one because the ladder can ice over. For most designs, we consider climate as part of the local adaptation. You need to worry about snow loads for drifts. If you have these large hanging loads, but you haven’t planned, it causes structural issues."

Employee Access and Logistics

Can staff make it into the data center if roads are closed, or when travel becomes dangerous? It’s important to have provisions at the data center, and to make sure the 24x7 staff can stay at the facility for long periods, in case others can’t make it in. Workers also need proper protective gear.

"A simple yet underappreciated factor to operating a data center in severe cold is basic staffing logistics," said Spencer. "Pre-deploying staff and supplies as the forecast calls for weather has been a useful tool. With a 24/7 facility, you need a contingency plan for staff who cannot come and go. Customers, especially with data centers in the suburbs versus downtown locations, will take longer to dig out after adverse weather and don’t have easy access to the same amenities.  Customers expect assurance that their critical systems are stable and may need remote hands services. We have contingency plans in place to assure we can provide that."

"Because several pieces of equipment are housed outside, employees working on these solutions will need to bundle up, to ensure their own safety," said Cooper. "Additionally, the lower temperatures generally cause maintenance to take longer: personnel are not as effective as they would be in the summer (require indoor breaks to stay warm, numb and slow hand), and equipment is slippery and more difficult to work on. Personnel should make sure they have appropriate protection for working outside in colder temperatures, including heavy coats and gloves."

Facility Preparations

Here's a checklist of steps to prepare and maintain a facility in cold weather:

  • Ensure remote monitoring panels are verified and all alarms are tested and working so you know right away if a generator block heater is defective or nonfunctional.

  •  Increase rounds on outside equipment

  • Ensure temperature probes are calibrated correctly

  • Watch weather forecasts often and abort or postpone maintenances in inclement weather

  • Ensure 24/7 access to equipment by preparing for cleaning/shoveling

  • Ensure backup battery start equipment is ready and available

  • De-icing products are sufficiently stored

  • Have critical parts on hand for Generators, UPSs, HVAC items, etc .in case there is a lengthy weather system.

  • Salt is corrosive. Keep this in mind.

Components at Risk

  • Generators: do you have additives in the fuel to protect against the weather? Do generators have functioning block heaters? "We store 24 hours of fuel per generator, that last 48 hours per pod," said Crosby. "I’m not a fan of more than that in colder environments. Less is more." "We ensure the right type and mixture of diesel fuel is in the tanks to prevent jelling or crystallization," said Spencer.

  • Fuel: Speaking of fuel, can fuel providers make it to your data center given weather and road conditions? "Fuel freezing is a very real thing," said Crosby, CEO Compass. "A very cold spell puts a lot of pressure on the power clients. If you’re in a peak area, and that generator  needs to start – cold doesn’t help.

  • Air/Water economization equipment: There’s been a big trend of data centers going to colder climates to take advantage of the cost savings. However, extreme cold limits economizer usage.

  • Water: For those that keep retention storage of water for chillers and cooling, is the water frozen?

"Cooling towers, air conditioning units and generators are the main components of the data center affected by adverse weather conditions," said Cooper. "If not well sealed, air conditioning units can allow snow into the facility, while water lines located inside walls, which are often ignored, can freeze and break without proper maintenance."

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